Monthly Archives: October 2013

Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. September 2013.

September saw me migrating to Islay, like the geese, though I was only there for three days: the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. I give it its full name because I love this festival, and I doubt it could happen without the sponsorship of Lagavulin, one of the distilleries on the island. Also, at each gig, they hand out drama of Lagavulin, one of my favourite whiskies, so that’s even more reason to thank them! I think Lagavulin deserve a lot of praise for supporting jazz in a pretty remote part of Scotland, so in case you missed it, it’s the Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival. (I should point that I have no connection with Lagavulin whatsoever. But should they wish to thank me for my support, a bottle would always be welcome…)

It is a very special event. Because it is remote – a two hour ferry trip from the mainland – and the ferry port is itself three hours drive from Glasgow, you have to want to get there. There is little passing trade. The islanders welcome the festival, both for the music and for the tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy. (The other being whisky – which also brings a lot of tourists.)

The gigs are put on in small, unusual venues: distillery visitor centres, the RSPB reserve, village halls, the Gaelic centre. The audience, too, is relatively small, and one sees the same faces at different gigs – and different years. People go back year after year; I think this is the seventh time I have made the trip in twelve years.

The small venues and audience mean that each gig has an intimate feel; and the sponsorship means that one can see internationally renowned artists in circumstances that are hard to imagine anywhere else. It is a privilege to go to these gigs.

Over three days I caught five gigs by four bands, two of which were really the same. The festival kicked off with Trio Libero, an improvising band costing of Andy Sheppard on tenor and soprano sax, Michel Battina on bass and Seb Rochford on drums. I had seen Sheppard and Rochford play in a trio before; this outing was a much more rewarding experience. Sheppard’s is necessarily the main voice, but both other players are central. Indeed, Rochford’s minimalistic playing is key: at times it seemed as if he was barely playing, but he made every note, every space count. They moved from bebop tunes to free(ish) improvisation, a joy throughout.

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The artists on Islay frequently pay in a variety of ensembles, the programmers mixing them around in new settings. But this was the first time I saw something new: two different ensembles which comprised the same three people. Debuting first as the Callum Gourlay Trio and then playing the following day as the Kit Downes Trio, the tag team of Gourlay on bass, Downes on piano and James Maddren on drums were a revelation. The first gig saw them playing mostly Gourlay’s tunes with a couple of standards added in. Gourlay’s writing showed real depth and maturity, with some beautiful tunes; his playing was excellent too – he played Charlie Haden’s “Chairman Mao” as an exquisite solo.

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The mood changed a little under Downes’ leadership, in a gig that featured mostly his tunes. I have seen him play several times in different bands, but I think this was the first time I had the opportunity to see him lead a trio. It was impressive.

Bassist Mario Caribe lead a trio with trumpeter Colin Steele and guitarist Graeme Stephen. Mario is the one musician – possibly the one person – who has been to every year’s Islay jazz festival, in one guide or another. He played three trio gigs this year, and I caught the first. Featuring several of Steele’s tunes, including excerpts of his Islay suite from his Stramash recording, a bunch of Mario’s and some standards, this was a comfortable afternoon gig: it had a lovely relaxed feel about it. Stephen worked some guitar trickery with a bundle of pedals that balanced Caribe and Steele’s unamplified instruments.

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The promoters had long wanted to get the Esbjorn Svennson Trio to Islay, and had discussed it several times with the band; Svennson’s untimely death in 2007 stopped that from happening, but EST’s drummer, Magnus Ostrom made the trip this year. Headlining two nights at different venues, the Magnus Ostrom Band were perhaps a curious choice for Islay. Their large amount of electronic equipment filled the two stages they played, and at times looked dangerously overloaded. A mixture of jazz, folk and prog-rock, they have quite a dark sound. Ostrom plays drums with a powerful intensity; he uses brushes unlike any other drummer. He looks pained as he plays, as if exorcising inner demons.

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Aside from Ostrom’s insistent drumming, the major musical voice is that of guitarist Andreas Houdarkis. Bringing the main prog vibe, Houdarkis uses lots of pedals to create a rich sound, balanced by the jazz-oriented acoustic piano of Daniel Karlsson. It was a moving performance.

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Jazz on a Couple of Summer’s Days… Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2013.

The first weekend of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, back in July, featured two outdoor events. First was the Mardi Gras, in the Grassmarket, followed the next day by the Carnival in Princes Street. These were both unexpected fun – unexpected because they didn’t really feature my kind of music. But fun they were, helped by exceptionally good weather.

The Mardi Gras had another advantage – beer, the pubs and restaurants that crowd along the Grassmarket doing great business. It was a lovely afternoon, wandering around in the crowd – the atmosphere was great.

There were a mixture of bands spread across four stages: blues musicians, New Orleans marching brass bands, tags bands – and (I think) a Taiwanese jazz band, played on traditional instruments – worth it just to hear the sound produced!

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The Carnival the next day was on a different scale: along the length of Princess Street, and throughout Princes St Gardens as well, a wealth of marching bands, street dancers and performers from all sorts of styles and traditions gathered and performed. The choice was startling – so much to see! And everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives.

In part this was only possible because Princes St was closed down because of the on-going tram works. There is something joyous about being able to walk unmolested through streets that are otherwise busy: a feeling of reclaiming the street from the traffic. I doubt this will be possible next year – the work is complete, and I can’t imagine the council being willing to close the street down to enable it.

Which would be a real shame! Everyone seemed to have a great time. The mood was excellent, the dancers impressive, and the best infectious – and this is music I didn’t expect to enjoy!

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“Now’s the Time!”: Denys Baptiste. Edinburgh, October 2013.

Denys Baptiste played his new suite, Now’s the Time, for only the second time on Monday night; it is an extended, complex and ambitious piece for jazz orchestra and chorus that made demands of both the players and the audience. It had moments of passion and brilliance, but was slightly marred by teething problems and the unforgiving environment of the Usher Hall.

Like Baptiste’s earlier suite, Let Freedom Ring, which made up the second half of this compelling concert, Now’s the Time was composed in response to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream…” speech. Let Freedom Ring was written to celebrate the speeches fortieth anniversary; Now’s the Time its fiftieth. As Baptiste said in his introduction, the world was possibly in a worse place than it was ten years ago, but his music caught an optimism for the future.

I have heard musicians argue persuasively the the blues, and the jazz it gave rise to, are inextricably linked to politics. Improvisation is an expression of freedom, and repressive regimes have repeatedly tried to suppress jazz. Certainly jazz musicians played a big role of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and free-jazz came out as desire for both musical and political freedom. The two suites played tonight are clearly political in their inception, which only adds to their power.

As with its companion piece, Now’s the Time was accompanied by spoken word, the poet Lemm Sissay making videos for each of the four movements. The videos worked well, but his voice overwhelmed the orchestra. For much of the time, the piano and bass were barely audible, a real shame when they are played by musicians of the calibre of Gary Crosby and Andrew McCormack. It took a while for the string section – two violins and two cellos – to settle in the mix too.

But the music was great. Each movement was presaged by the 60-odd members of a local community chorus singing spirituals or protest songs, and they really entered into the spirit of it. Their first tune, a spiritual, raised the hairs on my neck, and set the tone for the whole suite. It took the first orchestral piece for the players to find their feet; for the second, “Now’s the Time”, they stretched out as bit: it had a real bebop feel to it, and quoted sparingly from the bebop tune of the same name. The final section worked best, as if it all came together. The orchestra riffed simply behind a sequence of soloists, each upping the ante for a fine finale.

It will be interesting to see how the suite develops, both with musicians’ and audiences’ familiarity. At well over an hour, I felt it could safely be trimmed a bit, but I hope it is recorded sometime soon: I’d love to hear it again.

The second half of the concert was the more familiar music of Let Freedom Ring, expanded for the strings and chorus. The singers had little to do until the eponymous third part, but here they were very effective: hearing sixty people chant let freedom ring! sends a powerful message, and their singing in the final section, “Free at Last”, as positively moving. When Denys got the audience to join in as well, the effect was spine-tingling.

For this suite, the poetry was provided by Ben Okri, and it fitted better with the music, perhaps because I knew where it was coming. The visuals worked well, too – footage of civil rights abuses in USA in the fifties and sixties (including some heart-rending images) , followed by protests (in particular the “Great March on Washington” where Dr King made his famous speech); and then some more recent footage of civil rights violations and protests – anti-capitalism and anti-austerity marches, the Occupy movement, the Tahrir Square protests, anti-fascism marches in Greece, the Turkish Gezi Park demonstrations – all emphasing Baptiste’s notion of the currency of the feelings expressed in the music.

The final section, “Free At Last”, was a tour de force. Featuring an exquisite piccato cello solo, and a lovely piano solo, Nathaniel Facey then took a long alto solo, set against the chanting of the choir, which lead to a final solo by Baptiste. Then he got everyone chanting, “free at last!” At the end of the concert, after he had introduced the band – it took a while, it’s a BIG band, he lead the orchestra off the stage; as he did so, some of the band started the riff again, and the choir and audience joined in. Powerful stuff indeed.